John’s personal reading for January


The Queen, Her Lover and the Most Notorious Spy in History

By Roland Perry


I enjoy a good scandal and this offering serves it up quite neatly. Queen Victoria with all she has been made to seem in the past is always a good target and Perry has marshalled old material, elaborated and combined it with new sources to create a good holiday or occasional read.

Anybody who has read biographies of Queen Victoria is familiar with her childhood, youth and fractious relationship with her mother. To this, Perry adds details of a possible liaison with a slightly older non-royal aristocrat. Some of this material was new to me and some is simply rehashing rumour and secondary sources. Still, it is an interesting possibility of a relationship with the dashing Lord Elphinstone. Certainly there was a long-term friendship and appreciation terminated with a superb funeral monument not unlike that provided for the redoubtable Albert – given her taste and patronage, why not? Perry makes a deal of Victoria’s sexuality and Albert’s apparent poor match giving oxygen to rumours of potential homosexuality – God knows he certainly did his duty as a stud and did seem to have an earnest and thoroughgoing approach to the business of royalty as a force for good change probably in excess of what motivated Victoria.

The sections on John Brown and her later Indian servant have really little to offer that has not been written before but can be cast as part of a continuing pattern.

The standout material is the fruit of Perry’s earlier work investigating the Cambridge five (spies) – a series of scandals I remember acutely from my youth and early adulthood especially as they were shot through with allegations of the dreaded homosexuality (a cause for deep concern for my emerging sexuality and concerns about employment in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years). Perry claims to have become aware of an extensive cache of documents including letters between Victoria and her eldest daughter Vicky who became the Kaiseren of Prussia/Germany.

There is little doubt letters existed (at least 5,000) and it is well known that Victoria’s letters and diaries in England were heavily edited by yet another daughter (Beatrice). It is known that a British operative was sent to Germany at the conclusion of WWII to obtain the collection which might have included documents incriminating Edward VIII as a potential Nazi collaborator. The problem was that the man sent was (Sir) Anthony Blunt, (temporary) knight and Collector of the Queen’s Pictures, one of the Cambridge Five and (of course) homosexual. Perry has interviewed KGB officials who claim that Blunt microfilmed incriminating material and this was in possession of Soviet Russia. It is claimed that the Victoria letters which contained material supportive of the Elphinstone liaison and other indiscretions therefore became the bargaining chip for Blunt who, when exposed, lost his knighthood but was otherwise relatively lightly treated.

So, it is all a good read and can be treated as a bit of fun or as a quite serious but somewhat dubiously documented piece of history. The only thing that recently gave me pause for thought was the recent revelation that the abdicated King Juan Carlos of Spain (great great grandson of Victoria) has now been exposed to a series of paternity suits since his immunity was likewise abdicated – is it in the genes?


Australians: Flappers to Vietnam reviewed’ Volume 3

by Tom Keneally


This is the third volume of this series I have read (thanks to my sister who gives me a book token each year to purchase same). They are not histories in the academic sense. There is little of any overarching theme, thesis or direction beyond the concern to personalise events. What they present are a series of illuminations often from secondary sources carefully mined by his research team. The lack of classical detailed bibliographic research is matched by the richness of personal details he uses to illuminate episodes of history. (I confess to borrowing ‘illuminations’ as I heard Kenneally use the term himself in an ABC interview)

Each of the three volumes have been revelations for me with regard to Australians at war, His coverage of the Egyptian, Gallipoli and Syrian campaigns, the role of Australian women (nurses) in those theatres. Now there is his coverage of the depression years and Australian in WWII with emphasis on the New Guinea campaign which were extremely engaging. Certainly there is a nexus between these volumes and his fiction works as in ‘Daughters of Mars’. There are plenty of possibilities in this new material ranging from the personalities of the Depression years, the WWII years and the emergence of Vietnam. Given Kokoda’s emergence as the ‘new Gallipoli’ and Macarthur’s presence in garrison Brisbane, his coverage of the New Guinea theatre is very revealing highlighting upper echelon in-fighting.

He also covers a variety of social issues including the phenomenon of Japanese war brides and the response to that phenomenon leading into Post War immigration. Likewise he offers coverage of Australia’s involvement in the formation of the UN.

The ‘problem’ with these volumes doesn’t really exist as far as I am concerned. This is not an attempt to produce the definitive history of Australia, there are no grand over-arching themes. They have been produced for a more generalist audience, to engage and entertain and possibly to lead to further exploration. Given the pitiful history of teaching Australian history in Australian schools, I think they are major contribution as ‘illuminating’ starters that may engage interest in topics about which we should be more interested and opinionated.

I confess to particularly enjoying this volume as it covers so much of the years that formed my parents views and their impact on me as well as my own growing interest in history and politics.


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